Davis Cup Captain Tony Trabert was cautious and just a bit apprehensive last week in the beautiful, mountain-ringed city of Caracas as his U.S. team practiced for its matches with Venezuela, the first step in what is hoped will be a march to the final round late next year.
This was Trabert talking at courtside or in his hotel room: "We're not taking anyone lightly." and, "We're taking this thing seriously." and. "We have planned and prepared, we're not just flying by the seat of our pants." On the surface the U.S. had little cause to worry about Venezuela in tennis. The latest chatter from the official computer ranks Venezuela's best players, Jorge Andrew and Humphrey Hose, No. 139 and No. 282 respectively in the world. But Trabert knew that Latins had upset U.S. Davis Cup teams six times in the last 10 years, starting with the underdog Spaniards in 1965, and followed by Brazil in 1966, Ecuador in 1967, Colombia in 1974 and Mexico twice, in 1975 and 1976.
This time Trabert promised that if the U.S. did not win he would dive into the Caribbean and swim home, after first slathering himself with shark bait. He was saved from an untimely end when the U.S. defeated Venezuela 4-1.
Trabert assembled a powerful squad from three continents for the Caracas matches: singles players Dick Stockton and Vitas Gerulaitis, both in the world's top 20, and the doubles team of Freddy McNair and Sherwood Stewart, rated one of the three best pairs on earth. Gerulaitis flew down from the U.S., Stockton came all the way from Tokyo and McNair-Stewart arrived from Cologne.
November 22, 1976
In addition, this U.S. squad had some advantages over the one that was upset 4-1 in Bogotà by a Colombian team that didn't rank much higher on the computer's hit parade than the Venezuelans. The elevation in Caracas—3,418 feet above sea level—takes getting used to but it is 5,000 feet lower than Bogotà, and whereas the Bogotà matches were played on clay, the courts at Caracas' pretty Altamira Tennis Club are covered with Porosol, a concrete-hard, extremely fast surface suited to most Yankees.
As if anything else were needed, Trabert brought with him from Los Angeles Dr. Omar Fareed, an expert on tropical diseases and the answer to two trivia questions. Who was the blocking back for the very first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger of the University of Chicago? Why, Omar Fareed, of course. And who is the father-in-law of tennis player Charlie Pasarell? You guessed it. Trabert also invited new pro Bill Scan-Ion along. He is the baby-faced NCAA champion from Trinity University who already has moved up to No. 51 in the computer's rankings. A Davis Cup squad is limited to four men, so Scanlon was along strictly for seasoning and an exhibition match on Saturday.
"Scanlon's had an awfully good year," said Trabert. "Everyone I've talked to is extremely impressed with his potential. He looks to me like the next great American player. It's good to have him sort of get the feel of Davis Cup play."
By Friday, when the first two singles matches were played, each U.S. team member had had at least four days to acclimatize himself to the altitude and the time zone. They were all confident, although Gerulaitis, McNair and Stewart had never played Davis Cup before.
A drizzle momentarily held up the first match but it got started just after 5 p.m. in the gathering dusk. To help increase attendance, Trabert had agreed to the late-afternoon start, but he had hoped Gerulaitis would play first for the U.S. Instead, Stockton's name had come up in the draw. This is the 25-year-old Stockton's third straight year playing Davis Cup, but he had been complaining about the lights in late-afternoon practices, and Trabert thought he might get psyched out in the twilight.
A Davis Cup captain needs things to fret over, such as making ice cubes out of bottled water to guard his team from turista, but he need not have fretted about Stockton. He broke Jorge Andrew in the third game and rolled on to a straight-set victory, 6-2, 6-4, 9-7. Andrew, who was reared in Caracas and grew up playing at Altamira, led 5-4 and 6-5 in the third and had two set points, but Stockton followed Trabert's advice, quit being too careful returning serve and started "driving through the ball" and pulled the set out.
"That's some of the best serving I've ever done in my life," said Stockton. "I must have got close to 90% of my first serves in."
The second singles match pitted Gerulaitis, 22, the brash, likable New York City kid with the long blond mane, against the 6'4" Hose, who, along with Chris Evert and Connors, is one of the sport's truly fine and consistent grunters. Each time he serves, and often on ground strokes or volleys, too, Hose sounds like a bear that has just been punched in the solar plexus. Born in Curacao but a resident of Corpus Christi, Hose is a nephew of Venezuela's alltime tennis great, Iyo Pimental. Hose has not accomplished nearly as much, but in a Davis Cup match in Tucson last year he did have Connors reeling; big Humphrey led 4-1 in the first set and later had one set point before Connors settled down to win.
It was perhaps lucky for the U.S. that Andrew had played in the twilight match because Hose hits a hard serve off a short toss, in the manner of Roscoe Tanner. To his opponents it sometimes appears as if Hose is hitting the ball right out of his hand. The Venezuelan started off strongly, serving and grunting beautifully and breaking Gerulaitis to go ahead 3-0. It was a stumbling start for the young man who had just moved up from 20th to 19th in the world.
"Welcome to the Davis Cup," muttered Trabert to himself in his courtside seat.
Hose won the first set 6-3 and ambled off the court nodding to himself and saying, "O.K., O.K.," but it was not very O.K. for him thereafter. Gerulaitis discovered that the big bear was very clumsy on low forehand volleys and half-volleys and started chipping shots in that direction, winning a close second set 6-4 by breaking in the last game and going on to win the match 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
"At the 10-minute rest period after the third set, I couldn't get Vitas to sit down," said Trabert. "He was walking around in the locker room like a mechanical Mickey Mouse."
"At first I was trying to hit too hard," said Gerulaitis, "so I started chipping to his forehand, making him bend. It was hard work. I thought it would be a little bit easier."
Saturday's doubles match was played earlier, at 2 p.m., but the crowd did not increase, perhaps because the ticket prices were too high—ranging up to $14.00—or because the Yankees were ahead 2-0 or because it was such a lovely day that most everybody went over to Caracas' famous fishing port, La Guaira, to do a little angling.
Venezuela went with Andrew and Hose, both of whom had played for the University of Corpus Christi. Trabert used McNair, who was an All-America at the University of North Carolina, and the tall, bearded Stewart, who was born and reared in Goose Creek, Texas and went to Lamar Tech.
McNair is the gambler, the quick guy at the net. Stewart has a good serve, a powerful return of serve and a fine overhead. At the net McNair hogs more than his share of the territory. In the back-court, lobs and balls down the middle belong to Stewart.
They were too much for Andrew Hose, although McNair was jittery at first and never did get a lot of first serves in. The U.S. won 8-6, 6-3, 6-4 without too many tense moments. The highlight of the match came in the first set when the U.S. fought off three set points with Andrew serving, broke to tie at 6-6 and went on to win.
On Sunday Hose, who looks overweight but is used to playing in hot weather on the Caribbean circuit, defeated Stockton in a three-hour-plus match, 6-4, 3-6, 11-9, 9-7. In the final singles match, Gerulaitis downed Andrew 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 7-5.
The next Davis Cup match for the U.S. will be in December in Tucson, during a tournament lull when all of America's pros should be available in case Trabert calls. He will likely need whoever is playing the best because the opponent will be Mexico and its tough Raul Ramirez, who would like nothing better than to send Trabert home to L.A. by swimming around the tip of Baja California.